Qian Julie Wang (王乾) crafts a poignant immigrant memoir in her 2021 book Beautiful Country. She and her parents emigrated to the New York City metro area from China. Wang discusses her early school experiences, one with a more diverse student population than others. She struggles with her parent’s unhappy marriage. And she also experiences sweatshop work first-hand when accompanying her well-educated mother to this menial job.
The book is a unique coming-of-age story told with plenty of heart. Wang balances the difficulties of immigrant life with family moments. However, her family unit isn’t stable—her parents struggle with the stresses of life and fight often. Plus, Wang has limited support from other adults around her. Some of her teachers offer her kindness, while others are rude and just plain bigoted.
Wang teaches herself English with TV and some books in the “special ed” classroom where the school places her. Her childlike desire to find a silver lining in all the dark clouds of life is palpable and often heartbreaking.
When Wang’s mother falls ill, the family’s life becomes more complex. Despite being a kid, she’s overwhelmed with fears of losing Ma Ma and being sent back to China. While reading, I repeatedly felt her sense of doom.
Wang’s writing style is readable, and she makes it easy to care for her childhood self. I hurt as she described things like “shopping day,” when the family hunted through curbside trash for necessities and occasional treasures. When things went well, I also cheered.
I want a memoir to transport me even if the place it takes me is uncomfortable. And much of Beautiful Country is anything but beautiful and happy.
But it’s a story with depth that’s important to hear. Those of us with several generations of US-based ancestors often forget how hard immigrant life is. Stories like this remind us and encourage our empathy for today’s immigrants.